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Loose Threads

Nineteen

“Theodora says her heartbeat is increasing in speed,” Canaan said from where she stood against the wall. “She’s waking up.”

“I hope her mood will be better than it has been so far.”

“It can’t be much worse,” Canaan said with a laugh.

“That’s true.” While still feral and after being put through a level three conditioning cycle, the pokegirl had woken up fighting the restraints. Among her other abilities was a lot of enhanced strength and Iain was very glad he’d elected to use the strongest set of restraints he had and that his bed was designed for them to be strained to their utmost. Even then she’d made the bed groan and creak as she tried to fight free. And when she realized he was going to put his dick inside her she’d gone crazy trying to fight the restraints or kill him or just get away. He waited until she lifted her head and looked at him before speaking again. “Hello, I’m Iain.”

She tried a restraint and her face twisted angrily. “Release me.”

“Coherence is a good sign,” Canaan said.

“You said you’d be quiet,” Iain replied as the pokegirl’s head whipped around to look at Canaan. “And I’ll be glad to release you, just hold still.” He quickly removed her restraints, fumbling for a second with the tail catch. “There you go.”

Instantly she was up and standing where she could watch both him and Canaan. “Where is Geraldine?”

Iain noted almost idly that she held her tail up and partially curled like a scorpion. “She’s dead.”

“Did you kill her?”

“No.”

“What about Loviatar and Hel?”

They were the Dark Queen and Demoness, in that order. “They’re both dead. I killed them.”

“Why?”

“I’m not excited about having a Dark Queen or her lackey Demoness in my family.”

“I want to see their bodies.”

“You will. You may not like what’s happened to them, but you will. What is your name?”

Her ears flicked. “I cannot read your mind.” Blood began to trickle from her nose.

“You might want to stop that before I have to pokeball you and heal you when your brain explodes.”

She blinked and licked her nose with a long tongue. “You are like Geraldine.”

“I am an analog of her, but I believe my personality is not anything like hers.”

“How are you different?”

“I believe I had a question pending,” Iain said with a smile.

She frowned for a heartbeat. “You asked me my name. Why should I tell you?”

“I’d like you to so I can use it. I suppose you don’t have to but I’m pretty sure that someone will call you Bunny pretty quickly.”

She hissed softly. “Not more than once.”

“I’m not sure her mood is any better now,” Iain said.

“I noticed. I can’t read her. I think she has some Dark type in her splicing.”

Bright green eyes narrowed angrily. “What can you possibly know of splicing?”

Canaan extended her antenna high above her head. “I am a victim of the G-Stylus too. Iain would help you and he would let us help you alongside and with him.”

Her ears flattened. “I need no one’s help.”

Iain sighed. “You really want me to try with her?”

“Whether she believes it or not, you can help her, Iain. And whether or not she understands it, she needs your help.”

“It would be a lot easier to walk her outside and tell her to get the fuck out of my sight.”

The rabbit’s ears went flat as Canaan shrugged. “True, but when do you ever do the easy thing?”

“Stop ignoring me!”

“You said you don’t want any help but you want to be the center of attention?” Iain sounded like was trying not to laugh. “Really?” The rabbit’s claws extended and she crouched slightly, only to blink in surprise as she was suddenly looking down the muzzle of Iain’s pistol. “Now, now, my pretty little doe, if you want to get pissed at me and dance the dance, fine. I’ll probably lose, but hey it’s all fun and games if nobody loses an eye. If you want to gut me, I’ll paint the wall behind you with your brains and Canaan can find out all of your secrets for me.”

Her claws slowly retracted. “You, “she said in amazement, “you would fight me?”

“As long as it’s non-lethal combat, sure I will. Win or lose, it’ll probably be fun. But understand this: we work on trust here. If you agree and then renege and try to kill me, bad things will happen. If you actually succeed, I will remember that when I wake up and I am not likely to be happy at that point.”

She blinked. “You cannot be killed?”

“I never said that. I can be killed, so don’t go thinking that’s some kind of challenge.” She smiled faintly. “Yeah, just like that. What you don’t know is that I bound some undead Dragonesses to me just like Geraldine did.” Her smile vanished. “And what I have learned since then tells me that if I die, the bond I have with them will turn me into something a lot like they are. Since it happened to Geraldine, I believe that’s what waits for me after death.”

Her eyes went wide. “She is a lich?”

“She is, and she’s being worked on by my Dragonesses to see if she can be bonded to me. If she cannot, she will be destroyed.” His eyes were flat as they looked into hers. “And I killed Loviatar and Hel so they could be turned into liches under my command as well. That’s why you’ll see their bodies if you stay with us, they’ll just be animated. Right now they’re being buried under tonnes of bat guano.”

Her mouth dropped for a second. “Why?”

“There are beetles in the guano which will leave nothing behind but white gleaming bone.”

The rabbit straightened and smiled as he holstered his pistol. “I will fight you and you will lose. But if you impress me I will stay and I will tell you my name.”

“What do I have to do to impress you?”

“Stay conscious.”

He grinned. “Do I have to give up sleeping?”

Her ears flicked and she chuckled. “No, but you must remain awake for twenty minutes or defeat me. You may use any force you desire except for firearms and I will not kill you during that time.”

Iain glanced at Canaan. “She put in a nice qualifier there.”

Canaan laughed as he unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it to her. She grabbed it with her telekinesis and put it next to her. “I noticed that too. Don’t kill her.”

The rabbit looked shocked for an instant until Iain laughed too. “I don’t think you have to worry about that,” he said as he rolled his shoulders to loosen them. “But just in case, little doe, what happens if I do kill you?”

“You will not but you are welcome to try your best.”

“I will. But when this is all over I am going to want all of my teeth back.”

Canaan snorted. “Siobhan will grow them all back, I’m sure.”

“She may just decide that if my brains are soft enough to go against the pretty doe there I might not really be safe with anything tougher than strained beets.”

“Why do you call me that?”

“It’s true. Your primary form is that of a Snugglebunny, which is by far my favorite breed of rabbit pokegirl. You’re tall, but you are perfectly proportioned and very pretty. And female rabbits are does.”

“You forgot my tail,” she said as she held it out from her body for him to see.

“I haven’t forgotten it. It’s pretty too, in a lethal way, and I’m wondering if it’s ticklish.”

She frowned and her eyes went flat. “It is not ticklish,” she said in a half snarl. “No part of me is ticklish.”

“Aha. I know that tone. That tone says ‘I’m ticklish and if you touch me I’ll fall apart so you’d better not’.” Her ears went flat and his smile vanished. “Remember, no gutting or bad things happen. But if you don’t think I’ll try to get your goat, you’re crazier than Canaan was worried you were.”

She blinked. “I have no goat.”

“It means to make you aggravated.”

“That you have already done.” She went into a half crouch and bared her teeth at him in a predator’s grin. “The clock starts now.”

Iain dropped to the ground so her leap went over his head. She landed easily and spun in place as he lunged to his feet. His punch took her in the throat. She stepped backwards from the full power blow, gagging. She spat blood on the floor and gave him a twisted smile. “You are faster and stronger than I expected, but one of the girls that bitch blended me with was a Damsel and I have her durability. You’ll have to do better than that.” Her backhand blow was almost lazily thrown. The blow took Iain in the chest and knocked him flying across the room. He hit the wall hard and used the impact to push away as she charged.

You cannot take many more strikes like that, his twee said in an almost conversational tone. You have six cracked ribs and if she hits you there again they will likely become free floating and begin puncturing organs.

Master of the fucking obvious today I see, he snarled back. He dropped and swept her feet as she began to brake, instead making her hurl past him and slam face first into the wall. Now tell me how I keep her from hitting me.

Your limiters are already as relaxed as they can safely go.

Get ready to make them unsafe then.

The rabbit came off the wall with an angry snarl and her hand moved in a blurring slap to his face that sent Iain’s world white with pain for several seconds. When his vision cleared he was halfway across the room on his back. The rabbit was crouched over him with a concerned look in her eyes. “I lost control after you tricked me. I should not have hit you that hard. Are you crippled?”

Fucking bitch! A growl that started deep in Iain’s chest burst from his mouth and her eyes went wide as he came off the ground with a wordless scream. His left fist took her in the center of the chest hard enough to drive her backwards a step. Her eyes went wide and she grunted once as the sword blade slid from his hand into her body. His right fist was already moving and crushed her throat again. The blade retracted into his left hand and sprang from his right, punching through her throat and severing her spine as it exited out the back of her neck. Iain’s berserker rush slammed him into her body as the blade withdrew back onto his arm and knocked her and him sprawling in a growing pool of blood. He rolled over and got to his knees next to her head. Stunned eyes looked into his. “Are you impressed yet,” he snarled. Her mouth opened and a bloody bubble emerged. He just laughed and leaned over to look directly into her eyes as the light in them began to fade.

“Iain, you don’t really want her to die,” Canaan said calmly.

“Yes, I do,” he snapped without looking up. “I’m enjoying this.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be very bad for you? And today’s bout was supposed to be non-lethal. Now you’re breaking your word to your doe, when she trusted you not to kill her.”

He blinked and sanity returned to his eyes. He pulled the rabbit’s pokeball from his pocket and recovered her. Then he held it up. “Take it before I do something even more stupid than I almost just did.”

“No. You will not kill her.” Canaan walked over and knelt, cradling him in her arms. Healing magic coursed through his body as he jerked once and began softly crying as she picked him up and went over to sit on the bed with him. He didn’t cry for long before looking up at her with dry eyes. “No tears?”

“I seldom have them,” he said quietly. “It made my sisters never believe me when I did cry.” He looked down at the pokeball he clutched in his hands. “So my monsters still live. I guess that’s a good thing to know.”

“As I just witnessed, they make you strong, Iain. Stop trying to kill them. You need to control them instead. Just be glad your magic didn’t run wild too or there might not be anything left of her to save.”

He nodded. “Theodora, please send me a healing unit.”

“There is one in the dresser to the left of your bed in the bottom drawer.”

Iain looked up at Canaan. “I really enjoy you holding me.”

“I will do it whenever you want,” she said with a smile. “But I know.” She let him go.

He rolled off of the bed and pulled the bottom drawer open. “This doesn’t look like a pokeball healer.”

“That’s because it’s one of only a few that I built using nothing but Tirsuli technology. Put the ball in the depression and it will do the rest.”

He put the healer on the bed and pressed the ball into the concave surface of the top. A light pulsed next to the ball. “What does that mean?”

“It means the cycle is complete, Iain.”

“That’s fucking fast.” He pulled the ball away and put the healer back in the drawer. “How many charges does this unit have?”

“Five hundred and seventy five uses are available in a standard power unit. The healer has three of them.”

“Replace every healer we have with these.”

“Gladly,” her voice said from the air next to the bed. “I’d appear but that would just confuse your newest pokegirl. She does not seem to take confusion well.”

“Yeah, she’s not alone in that.” He sat down on the mattress and activated the pokeball, aiming it next to the bed.

The rabbit appeared standing in front of him. Her eyes were wide and she immediately checked her throat, her ears flicking uncertainly.

“You should be fine,” Iain said quietly.

Her head came around and she immediately knelt, looking at the floor. “Master, my name is Ganieda.” She pronounced it Ganeeda.

“Get up.” She looked up at him and he smiled. “I am not Geraldine. Only two pokegirls call me master, one because she’s still coming to terms with what moving into my life has changed for her and the other because she knows it annoys me and she finds that funny. I’d rather there not be a third.”

Her eyes searched his as she stood. “What should I call you?”

“Iain is fine.”

“I can’t do that. I’d forget when we were in public and we’d both get in a lot of trouble.”

He patted the bed next to him and she gave him a puzzled look. “Please sit.” He smiled. “You’re making my neck cramp looking up at you.”

“I could kneel next to the bed again, master.”

He sat up. “You’re smart, right?”

“I am very smart, master.”

“This isn’t the world Geraldine and you were on. It has different governments and different rules. Here, anyone who tells me that you have to call me master will get laughed at. If they try to force me or you they’ll get hurt. I’ll hurt them unless you beat me to it. Here in Texas nobody will, though. We don’t get involved in the personal business of others. I have more than a dozen pokegirls in my family and, like I said, only Dianthus and Siobhan call me master. Later I’ll give you the technical explanation if you’d like.” He frowned. “You are staying, right?”

“I really don't have to call you master?”

“That’s right.”

She nodded. “I am staying.” She hesitated. “Iain.”

He slid off of the bed and took her hand. “I know it’s difficult. Just try to work with me and everything will sort itself out.” He guided her around until she had to sit down on the bed or fall on it. Her eyes never left his as she sat, her tail curling up to drape over her shoulder. “I take it you weren’t allowed on Geraldine’s bed?”

She shook her head. “She didn’t let me on it after my tail sliced her mattress open.”

“If that happens I’ll get a new mattress. Did you do it on purpose?”

She shook her head again. “No. I was having a bad dream.”

He sat next to her, still holding her hand. “You have a lot of those, don’t you?”

She nodded. “I can’t read you at all. Not even my touch is working. Yes, I have a lot of bad dreams.”

“Canaan here can help and between me and her I think we can make those dreams less or possibly less severe.” He eyed her for a second. “Promise not to freak out?”

She blinked and her eyes narrowed. “I do not freak out.”

“Ok. I can tell a lot about you. I can’t tell all of the pokegirls you were blended with, but I know that one of them was a Hunter and that you kept that part of her. Do you know what that is?”

“I do.” She eyed him warily. “Geraldine wanted me to be one.”

“Is she the one who you called the bitch earlier?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I am not going to ever go near you with that fucking G-Stylus without your permission. You have my solemn word.”

“I will never give that permission,” she said firmly.

“That makes it easy.” He stroked her hand with his gently. “Your fur is soft.”

“Why do you keep changing the subject like that?”

“I’m looking for something to talk about that doesn’t make you nervous. Holding your hand lets me feel when you tense up.” She jerked her hand free and he made a face. “That’s just mean.”

Canaan laughed. “You could fuck her. I find it relaxing when you fuck me.”

“I really suspect Ganieda has questions before we do anything like that. Besides, I don’t know if she likes restraints or not and if she doesn’t I’ll take them off the bed first.”

“How did you beat me?”

“I’m sorry about that. I got pissed when you slapped me. When you leaned over me and taunted me with my weakness, I kind of lost it.” He turned over his left forearm. “As for how I did what I did, see the sword on my arm?”

She peered at it closely, finally bending down to lick the tattoo before straightening. “That is not a real tattoo.”

“No, it isn’t.” Iain held his hand out and his sword slid into it. “I haven’t had the chance to look at the details of Geraldine’s life yet since I haven’t been able to talk to her, but I believe her life differed significantly from mine. This is one of those differences.”

Ganieda held her hand over it. “I can feel its power. Where did you acquire it?”

“Do you know that Elves and Elfqueens can call a living weapon from a tree?” She nodded. “Well, I helped Ninhursag, the Elfqueen who is my maharani, create a very special tree and the tree later gave this to me.”

“Geraldine had a magical spear but it couldn’t do this and it wasn’t from a tree.”

“Yeah we looked for it. I think the BLSF took it.”

She snorted softly. “It probably vanished when she died since it was made from the life of the people around her and only made solid through her will” She glanced at him. “May I hold it?”

“Later, perhaps.” The sword vanished back onto his arm. “What do you know about magic?”

“One of the pokegirls I was blended with was a Bramage from the Order of Pendragon. She was well trained and I gained her skills and knowledge from her.” Her ears went flat. “She was Ganieda. My mistress hoped that Ganieda would be dominant and eliminate me, leaving her a compliant magical assistant.” Her lips drew back to show her teeth. “She was so disappointed that she punished me for a week afterwards.”

Iain took her hand again. “Hey.” She looked at him. “Geraldine is dead and later I’ll prove it to you. You’re here now and I want you, not some silly Bramage.”

Her ears focused on him as she stared into his eyes. “You are serious.”

“I am. For the purposes of this discussion, you need to understand that what you did in the past or who you might have done it to doesn’t matter. You’re a Grey now and we take care of our own. What you do from here forward is what is important. You’ll make mistakes and you’ll hurt people, if nothing else then during the sparring sessions. But if there is something that you just will not do or cannot do or need help with, speak up and we will understand and help as best we can. Canaan here tells me that what happened to her was very traumatic and it took her years to come to terms with it and she was only blended once. You sound like it happened many times so it is likely to be a lot worse for you. You are not alone in this. Everyone in this family will want you to get better and we will help you pretty much however you want or need.”

“I have problems,” Ganieda said quietly. “The memories of everyone are all jumbled together inside me and things come up without warning, especially when I dream.”

“First of all, you are not alone in that.” She blinked and he smiled. “I have the same problem and on top of that I had anger issues before I ever started all of this.”

“You were blended with the G-Stylus?”

“No, but I have the memories of three other people in my head.” He smiled. “I’ll explain later.”

She stared for a second. “I do not know how many I was blended with. I cannot remember them all. I do remember more than twenty since Ganieda. My mistress would use the Stylus when she was bored with what I was at that time. She’d send her Dragonesses out to find something she wanted to blend me with. Sometimes she just told them to bring back someone interesting.”

“How is it that you’re still sane,” Canaan asked.

Ganieda’s eyes narrowed. “I would never give her the pleasure of breaking me.”

“She has that in common with you too,” Canaan said to Iain. Ganieda frowned at her and she grinned. “Iain doesn’t let people break him either. That’s how he defeated you.”

She tossed her head lightly. “I will win next time.”

“We are not doing that again,” Iain said firmly.

She scowled. “Why not? I must even the score.”

“A good sneeze from you could tear my head off, that’s why. I played your game, I impressed you and all of our next fights will be during training under carefully supervised conditions.” He winked. “And I am well aware that you’ve seen my one real trick and it won’t work again.”

She smirked. “No, it will not. You will have to find more tricks in the future.”

“I’ll see what I can do. I know Snugglebunnies are standard omnivores but you’ve had so much happen to you I don’t know if that is still true for you. Do you have any special dietary requirements?”

“I was blended with a Vampire and I like blood a lot, but I don’t seem to have to have it. And it might be dangerous if I bit you.”

“How so?”

She stared at the mattress between them. “I can’t bite to drink blood without releasing venom.”

“It’s something you have to learn,” Canaan said. “We know a couple of Vampires and I’m sure we can work out a deal where one of them can teach you more control.”

Ganieda looked so surprised that Iain laughed. “I said we’d help you and I meant it. If you can learn that control, I’m sure I can be talked into letting you have some blood as a treat.” He looked up. “Let me have your tail, please?”

“Be careful,” she said as she dropped her tail into his hands.

He examined the end carefully. It was made of bone that was as black as her hair and shaped like an oversized Scottish dirk. “Wow that looks really sharp.” He poked himself in the wrist with the tip. Blood immediately began welling. “Yeah, that’s sharp.” He held the wrist up towards Ganieda. “I seem to have cut myself. Want it?” She moved in a blur, her hands catching his wrist as she fastened her lips around the cut. She sucked, her eyes drifting closed. “Gently,” he said calmly as her cheeks sank inward. “You’re trying to suck a liter out of a hole that’s designed for milliliters. Just enjoy the taste and no biting.”

When he healed she licked his wrist with her long tongue and gave him a lazy smile. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” He gently tugged his arm free of her grip. “Now, what we’re going to do is I am going to take you around and introduce you to your new family members and then we’re going to sit down and have a talk about what it means to be clan. Things to know: there are a lot of children here, so please be careful when playing with them. And you can’t force them to play with you if they’re not interested.”

Ganieda blinked. “You would let me around your children?”

“If you are clan they are your children too,” he said. “And as a Hunter I know you don’t want to hurt your children. Someday, if you’re willing, some of our children will come from your womb.”

Canaan touched her on the shoulder as Ganieda’s face fell. “Sister, I too once thought I could not have offspring after I was violated and yet I have two wonderful daughters who carry all of my traits and who will be excited more than you can imagine to meet you. What may or may no be possible for you has not yet been determined, but I can tell you that I have never seen Iain fail to give one of his women what she needs. And for ones such as you and me, we need our children.”

“The mistress said I would never have children.”

Iain slid out of bed and tugged Ganieda to her feet. “And how does that matter now? She is dead; you are not and I am not her. Nothing she said has any bearing on what happens to you today or any day after today unless you let it. Yes, we’ll have to run some tests. And we don’t know what those tests will show us. But even if you can’t bear offspring, then I’ll just have you cloned.”

“She would rather enjoy pregnancy,” Canaan said.

“It has been my experience here that not everyone enjoys pregnancy as much as you did and definitely not like Zareen. Ganieda is a hunter but she isn’t you.” He looked at Ganieda. “However that is a conversation for another day. Would you like to meet your new family?”

“I would.”

“Good.” He glanced at Canaan and they led her from the room.

***

In the dark of space the drone circled around the slowly rotating asteroid, its active sensors scanning carefully. Finally it stopped and fired a series of relatively low powered laser bursts. Its optical sensors analyzed the reflected light for tantalum, found none and turned away as it accelerated for the next closest asteroid.

Had it located tantalum it would have dropped one of the fifty beacons it carried onto the asteroid and then sent a message to Bastion that here was tantalum for processing.

Some time later its sensors registered an anomalous light source. Drones did not have a true AI, but the expert system that operated it was programmed for curiosity and it put the search for tantalum on hold to investigate. First, it activated its radio receivers and quickly cycled through the programmed list of broadcast frequencies of the four groups operating in this solar system to see if one of their pieces of equipment was nearby. Other than the residual background noise of stellar activity, the bands were quiet.

Next the drone tried broadcasting on the same frequencies, inquiring if Vallation, Eriu, Bastion or Theodora had any equipment nearby. It stopped after an hour with no response.

The expert system dropped a beacon onto the asteroid beneath it and boosted hard in the direction of the light for ten seconds. Then it turned off all active systems and for all intents and purposes became just another piece of floating debris. Twice it had to operate its engine at low power to navigate around an asteroid, but as soon as it was back on course it went silent again.

Eventually the light source came into view and the drone zoomed its optical sensors to maximum as it dropped another beacon to float free behind the drone and opened a hyperspace communication link with it in order to send video and passive sensor analysis of what it was seeing. It cycled its engines at very low power to open the distance between it and the beacon behind it.

The drone’s programming did not allow it to feel surprise, but its internal memory held no reference for what it was seeing and its expert system essentially froze for several seconds while attempting to find one. It quickly defaulted to the rarely used unique discovery protocol and immediately flagged the outgoing video as potentially critical even as it resolved the conflicting instructions between the fact that its current ballistic course would take it within less than a quarter of a light second of the anomaly, which was too close under the unique discovery protocols and not firing its engines in order to remain as stealthy as possible as required under the same rules. Stealthy won out and the drone didn’t do anything except tune all its passive sensors to maximum sensitivity, record and broadcast as it moved ever closer to the light source.

The intelligence that commanded the light source and its associated objects was as artificial as the drone’s expert system and just as limited in many ways, even if it was magical in nature as opposed to technological. Its primary duty was to finish procuring the required elements for its creator in the right proportions before its creator returned. It was busy dismantling an asteroid for those elements when it detected a source of purified metals streaking by on a path that would put it relatively close to the intelligence and its construction. Analysis showed that the object held several small amounts of required elements in pure form and the intelligence didn’t hesitate in disassembling the object and incorporating the object’s constituents into its work.

Sensing the sudden loss of transmission and combining it with the unique flag on the data stream it had been receiving, the beacon compressed everything it had received and sent a burst transmission to the asteroid beacon. Less than a minute later it too was destroyed as it drifted into the intelligence’s sensor envelope.

The asteroid beacon checked to see if there was a friendly hyperspace communication system nearby. Finding none, it waited as the asteroid rotated to locate the sun and began broadcasting an encrypted radio message to Cassiopeia and Vallation, breaking off the message every time the sun slipped below the horizon and restarting as soon as it reappeared.

Bastion picked up the first of the incoming signals eighteen minutes after the beacon had transmitted them.

Theodora appeared in data system of Bastion in response to Cassiopeia’s emergency summons. “What is so urgent, Cassiopeia?”

“I have an emergency report from a beacon from a drone I had looking for tantalum in the asteroid belt.” She sent the coordinates. “Do you have any assets near there with access to a hyperspace communication net?”

“I could have sold you as much tantalum as you need,” Theodora said. “I have a couple of tugs 17,456,893 km from that location. One of them has a high power array so I can program it on the fly for precision work. They’re a package deal so do you want to rent them or do you want me to control them.”

“You keep it. You’ll be getting what it is sending soon enough.”

“The tugs are on the way,” Theodora said. “They were headed in that general direction anyways and will be in range of the beacon in 378.46 seconds. Where is the drone?”

“According to the beacon, it was destroyed by a unique discovery event. The beacon says it has a lot of data to transmit and I want the high quality version instead of radio.”

Theodora frowned. “A unique discovery? Maybe it was a StarlightXpress.”

“I hadn’t programmed them into the drones,” Cassiopeia admitted. “It would report encountering a Starlight as a new finding.”

“Well, we’ll have more information soon. Do you want to give me the encryption key or should I just pass the data straight to you?”

“Pass it to me. I’ll give the raw data and any conclusions I draw to you after I review it.” They both knew that it would only take milliseconds for Cassiopeia to do so.

Theodora was motionless for the time it took the tugs to get within communication range of the beacon. “Handshake is complete. Telemetry uplink is complete. Recognition codes required.”

“Here they are.” Cassiopeia sent them.

“Data download commencing.” Five seconds passed. “Data download complete and sent to you.”

Cassiopeia’s eyes turned thoughtful. “I’m sending you the decrypted footage and the raw data along with the encryption key so you can decode it yourself. My analysis is after that. You may have to sacrifice your drones for me.”

Theodora opened the file.

The drone detected an unexpectedly bright light and had investigated as per its software driven protocols, dropping a relay beacon and moving under minimum power as per those same protocols. It avoided a few impacts and approached the light, which grew brighter as it closed. It caught an image and its optical sensors locked on and began zooming in as it dropped another relay beacon and began transmitting what it saw and sensed to it.

The light was a glowing sphere that was circling around and illuminating another sphere. The sparkle of the light on the illuminated sphere indicated the presence of an atmosphere roughly a third larger in diameter than the sphere itself. A thin thread of blue green light connected the illuminated sphere to a nearby asteroid, which was deflating like a balloon losing air.

As the drone approached, Theodora could see what looked like water on the illuminated sphere. She ran a quick absorption spectrograph on the glowing sphere. “Color, temperature and light hitting the surface of the other sphere suggests the artificial equivalent of a G5V star. That’s a tiny artificial solar system with one planet.” There was no scale of reference, so size was impossible to determine at this point.
“The drone detects no EM or gravitonic emissions that could explain a stable solar design,” Cassiopeia argued.

The drone got too close and a flash of blue green light filled the visual image as the recording abruptly ended.

“It is magic based,” Theodora said firmly. “Iain and Kerrik have been discussing the possibility of hostile truewizards entering local space. Show this to Kerrik immediately. Truewizards are creatures of habit and it’s a small community. He just may recognize who does this sort of thing.” She thought quickly. “I will sacrifice the tug without the high power link. It’ll do laser range finding as it closes so we can get sizes on what we’re seeing. The second tug will stay just in range for hyperspace communication with the first tug and relay to us until it loses contact with it.”

***

Iain was in the bathroom washing his hands when the voice sounded in his head. Iain, I have a possible emergency. A tiny planet with its own atmosphere and tiny sun has been seen in the asteroid belt. I have the raw and enhanced footage available.

He sighed and looked back at the doorway to his bedroom where slept a surprisingly cuddly Winifred. “Why does everything seem to happen at two in the morning,” he said very quietly. He slipped out the door and headed quietly downstairs to the kitchen. For a change, it was empty and quiet. “Lights, low.” Light bulbs in the ceiling began spreading a soft diffusive light everywhere. “Lights off, fridge.” He opened the door and smiled when the inside light didn’t come on and try to blind him. He pulled out a large bowl of leftover goulash and a milk pitcher, grabbed a spoon and sat down at the table. He leaned back and closed his eyes. “Show me.”

“Please get a glass for the milk,” Theodora said as she appeared beside him. “I don’t think you want the girls to decide that it’s all right to drink straight from the pitcher.”

Iain got up and got a glass before returning to the table. “I should have gotten a beer.”

“Milk is better for you than beer is right now, even small beer,” Theodora replied. He glanced up at her and she shook her head. “And if you say ‘yes mother’ I’ll see if one of my defensive lasers can heat that pitcher of milk to boiling without spraying it everywhere when I try.”

“What should I say instead of yes mother?”

“Yes, oh wise and beautiful woman who is utterly devoted to me and takes care of me unceasingly more than I can ever imagine would be nice.”

Iain uncovered the bowl of goulash and took a spoonful of it. “And as soon as anyone else heard that they’d all want something that special for themselves. I’ll just quietly accept that you’re right.” He stuck the food in his mouth and started chewing.

“That works.”

He poured himself some milk as he chewed and swallowed. “Well, what does this tiny solar system presage?”

“It’s possible evidence of an unknown truewizard operating near the asteroid belt.”

Iain had been taking a drink of milk. He sucked milk down his windpipe and coughed it all over the table in front of him. “Crud.” He got a towel and started cleaning up. “Show me.”

“Playing.”

The video from the drone played out inside Iain’s head as he continued eating. “Well that does look like a truewizard who wants all of the creature comforts of home, albeit on a smaller scale. It would be really amusing if his planet had the same continents his original one did.” He shook his head. “No, that would be too easy and most truewizards haven’t really been in orbit to see the continents from space.”

“This one has a habitat in space,” Theodora pointed out.

“He’s probably learned it’s safer to travel back and forth outside your target planet’s atmosphere. Even in a high tech universe, a solar system is big and finding something small in it is really hard. How big is the planetoid?”

“I sent in a tug and did some laser imaging before it was destroyed in turn. The planet is roughly two kilometers in diameter.”

Iain’s twee gave him the answer to a question he hadn’t asked yet. “That gives him roughly twelve and a half square kilometers of surface to work with. That would be nice. You could put in a nice little palace and build a limited ecosystem on something that big. Or just keep vast herds of your favorite food creatures and guardian monsters.”

“I can build you a habitat if you’d like. I can stock it with real animals and no feral pokegirls at all.”

“You are quite the spoiler,” Iain said with a smile. “But I have plenty of room on your ship right now.” His smile faded. “Has Kerrik called?”

“No. Cassiopeia was going to inform him immediately.”

“That means he’s either not taking her calls right now or he doesn’t think this is important yet.” He thought for a few minutes. “Can you get some probes with long range visual equipment on board in position to keep an eye on the, we’ll call the star and planet together a ship, a long way away? And by a long way away I mean way outside the limit at which it destroys things that are getting close to it.”

“I can. I still have a tug in the area watching the ship. The destruction of my first tug took place roughly thirty five thousand kilometers from the foreign vessel. I can manufacture and deliver the probes into that area in forty one hours.”

“Get started. It looks like it’s still under construction in the video I saw. When it’s done, keep track of it if you can. I know that if it teleports or gates you can’t, but do what you can.”

“Should I attack it?”

“No. Don’t do that. Retreat or self-destruct if retreat isn’t an option. First, if you attack and fail, it lets whoever is on that thing know that we’re aware of his, her or its presence. Second, it is possible, although oddly coincidental to see them here that the owner may not be an enemy unless we turn them into one when we introduce ourselves with a volley of missiles.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She frowned. “I can’t see any more preparations at this time.”

“Make a whole bunch of ship to ship combat drones. Hopefully we won’t need them, but if we do I don’t want to be waiting for them to be made.” He frowned. “Is the new Cnoc Raffan hull ready for Eriu to move into?”

“No. She wanted to build it herself and it won’t be ready for power plant startup for six more months.”

“Let her know there’s a new threat and offer to help her expedite construction. If things go badly she might get ignored and be able to rescue the Sullivan family and get them safely off world.”

“Should I start on a war hull?”

“If you had one I’d say get into it. But since we don’t, if things go that badly we’ll be on board the Theodora and running as fast as we can,” Iain said. “But keep that hyperspace drive module ready for use.”

“I’ll hit the asteroid belt someplace far from where this ship is and get a full load of raw material and then put the drive module into place. After that I am going to start construction on a true war hull for me.”

“Good. Are your missile magazines full?”

“Yes. I have an even mix of war shots and ECM/ECCM drones in my magazines. It's a standard anti-pirate weapon load out.”

“That will do for now. I wonder if we fire on them if they’ll be able to react to c-fractional missiles before they impact.”

“Later we can run some experiments to see if you can develop some kind of spell that will, but I suspect that most of magic using individuals are limited by what they can imagine. I have heard of no light speed or near light speed magical projectile weapons. And if the missiles don’t work I will be far away from the launch site and actively maneuvering when we learn they don’t. That should help to keep me safe.”

“That sounds like the beginnings of a plan.” Iain washed the bowl and spoon before putting them in the drying rack. He finished the glass of milk and put the pitcher in the fridge while the glass was washed and joined the bowl and spoon. He looked at the door that lead to the yard for a moment and sighed. “I’d really like to go for a walk, but I’m not going to wake up someone to be my guard to do it.”

“You could walk through the garden on the Theodora.”

“You’re a wonderful girl, but it’s not the same. I want to look up and see the stars and not a reproduction of them.”

“I’m going to build a habitat,” Theodora said. “You don’t have to visit it, but it’ll let me grow more animals and do some ecosystem experimentation to see what optimum population densities are supposed to be. For you I’ll put a transparent dome on part of it so you can see the stars and there you can walk alone if you wish.”

Iain smiled at her. “Could I really stop you?”

“With but a word, Iain, with but a word.”

He regarded her for a moment. “Yeah, I know. Build it.”

“Thank you. I’ve got some really good ideas and I think you’ll like it a lot.”

“I’m sure I will.” He stretched. “I’m going back to bed. If Kerrik calls, tell him what I’ve done and I’ll either call him back or we’ll talk when I get there for lessons today.”

“I will. Sleep well.”

***

Raven stopped, one hand still on the door leading outside. “What the fuck is that?”

Pandora smiled amusedly. “That is the newest member of my family.”

The Archmage looked at Iain. “So, does she have a name?”

He chuckled. “She does.”

“I am Ganieda,” the Splice said. She was wearing a light blue sundress and had hidden her tail underneath the skirt. “And while Iain said you were alive in this world, I am still surprised to see you again.”

Pandora glanced at her. “You know Raven?”

“Not by that name I don’t. I have memories of her assisting in training one of my blends in the combat and magical tracking skills the Betrayer required all of us to learn. Most of my training was provided by Misery. I never met Whisper, Autumn or Morwen.”

“Ganieda is like Canaan in that she was spliced using a magical item,” Iain said. “The difference is that she was, as she calls it, blended with a whole bunch of other pokegirls and that is why she’s as pretty as she is.”

“I trained a lot of Hunters,” Raven said slowly, her eyes still locked on Ganieda. “But Misery and I only collaborated on a few dozen students, usually ones with great potential. What name did you carry then?”

“I don’t know. I have only fragmentary memories of that victim’s mind.” Ganieda’s ears flicked. “I could not even tell you what breed she was or when we were blended. I do know that after her, I no longer forgot anything other than some of the worst blendings.” She shrugged. “For all I know, I was the Hunter you trained.”

Raven shook her head. “After what happened to Misery only a handful of Snugglebunny Hunters were decanted. I didn’t train any of them.”

“She’s from a different universe,” Iain said. “There, Raven might have trained Snugglebunnies.”

“Doubtful. I hated them always wanting to touch people, especially me. My secrets are mine.”

He frowned. “So how did you become friends with Alice?”

Raven smirked. “What, you don’t know?”

His eyes narrowed. “Fine, I’ll just see if I can find out.”

“You do that.”

He closed his eyes and reached out for the Cosmic Awareness. After a minute his eyes snapped open. “That I didn’t expect.”

Raven snorted, but the sudden wariness in her eyes was easy to see. “What?”

“Alice catching you and deciding to let you live.”

Raven hissed. “That is none of your fucking business.”

“Then you shouldn’t have challenged him to find the answer to his question,” Kerrik came through the door and closed it behind him. “You were letting in flies.”

She blushed slightly. “Sorry.”

“For which?” Her flush deepened as Kerrik turned to Iain. “Have you done that before?”

“No, that’s the first time I tried to do that.”

“We’ll have to do some testing later.” His ears flicked as he turned to Ganieda. “I take it you’re Ganieda?” He smiled when she nodded. “Iain told me what he wanted, but he didn’t say just how striking you are.”

Her ears canted uncertainly. “Did he tell you to compliment me?”

Kerrik frowned. “No, why?”

“She has the same problem Dianthus has,” Pandora said. “She can’t believe Iain or anyone else can think she’s pretty.”

Kerrik nodded. “She’s not alone in that.” He looked at Ganieda. “Is Iain important to you?” She blinked and nodded. “You are inside his bubble and he won’t lie to you unless by doing so he can help your life to improve, so it could be that he is lying to you about how attractive he thinks you happen to be. I cannot lie. I believe Iain when he says he thinks you are pretty and I think you are pretty, if in an unconventional way. But since Iain is important to you, you should believe what he says and I understand that since I am not important to you then what I say doesn’t really matter to you.”

Ganieda’s ears flicked. “What happens if you lie?”

“I know it will be bad.” Kerrik said. “Either I will immediately die or the universe will end. Since I’ll die in either case, just in one situation I won’t go alone, I don’t intend to find out.”

He looked at Iain. “Morwen has agreed to try and help Ganieda learn how not to release her transformative venom when she bites someone.” His ears flicked. “Have you tested her venom?”

Iain smiled. “I don’t have the skill set to do so and was hoping you’d be curious enough to volunteer to look or at least be willing to let me pay you to investigate. Theodora did analyze a sample of it and couldn’t find anything conclusive either way.”

“What do you mean, tested my venom,” Ganieda looked at Iain. “It came from that Vampire I was blended with. What’s to test?”

“Yes, but you’re also part Blade Bunny and they can carry a transformative venom too, and some of your behavior suggests you might have been an Alpha and a carrier of their virus. It is possible, although unlikely, that the venom chances were also blended. A victim of your bite might become a Vampire, a Blade Bunny, turn into a copy of what you are now or it could be random choice between the three.”

Ganieda’s ears went back so quickly Iain didn’t even see them move. “Until you said that I was willing to try to learn how not to infect someone. Now I will learn. Nobody else has earned the right to be me.”

Iain regarded her evenly. “That’s an excellent reason.”

Kerrik smiled. “It is. Morwen is in Austin right now dropping off my Ranger paperwork with Garrett. She should be back in a little bit and then she’ll get started with Ganieda.” He smiled at Iain. “Which leaves you in my capable hands.”

“Yeah, it does.” He started to say something else and broke off when Kerrik blurred forward. There was a flurry of blows and Iain went skidding across the ground. He rolled quickly to see if Kerrik was still attacking, but the kami was merely watching. Iain rolled to his feet, holding his right forearm. “Pandora, one broken wrist.”

She chuckled as she headed for him. “What, you want another one?” He glared at her and she smiled. “You’re getting faster but you should have started with the counterattack instead of parrying first.” She gripped his injured arm and healed his wrist. “Don’t think before responding. This is all about muscle memory and it’s supposed to be automatic. You’re supposed to have done your thinking while you were learning what to do.”

“I thought you were on my side.” Iain stepped past her. “Round two?”

Kerrik was watching Ganieda, who was observing with interest. “You’re not getting involved?”

“Why should I,” she said. “Iain isn’t in any danger and he knows it. I’ve seen him move faster than this.”

Kerrik’s ears came up. “Really,” he said interestedly, “when?”

“It was when I was fighting him. It’s probably because he doesn’t really think you’ll hurt him badly and he knew that if I caught him I would have. After all, the conditions of our fight were that he had to stay conscious for twenty minutes.”

“Aw, fuck,” Iain muttered as Kerrik’s eyes lit up. “This is going to freaking hurt.”

Kerrik smiled at him. “First rule: Pandora isn’t allowed to heal you anymore today while you’re here. Second rule: You have to stay conscious for ten minutes. Third rule: No firearms. Fourth rule: This bout will use no offensive or defensive magic. Healing is allowed if you can heal yourself.” He curled his hands into fists. “And to make it sporting I’ll just use fists.”

“Like that’s going to make much of a difference,” Iain muttered.

***

“We're secure,” Allison said over the intercom.

Iain had been monitoring the landing through his twee and he chuckled. “I hate to admit this but you're already a better pilot than I am.”

Allison came out the cockpit as she slung her rifle. “Really?” She stopped in front of him and winked. “Thank you for the praise, but I've seen the recordings of how well you fly using the neural link. You are very good.”

“Maybe, but I think you have more natural ability than I do, which means that eventually you'll be better than I am with the neural link, too.”

The Umbrea grinned and looked around. “I'd like a ruling on that, Theodora.”

She appeared. “While it is true that you have more natural piloting ability than Iain does, you are also correct in being hesitant about your superiority. Flying a ship in manual is a skill, but using the neural link is a different skill and Iain is superior to you in his ability to mesh his neural activity with that of a mechanical neural control system.”

Iain shrugged. “I can't break even.” He looked at Pandora. “Ready?”

She nodded. “Allison is my backup.”

“Drones away,” Theodora stated. “Security perimeter established.”

Iain shook his head and activated the hatch, waiting until the ramp finished running out before waving Pandora out in front of him. “Ladies first.”

She winked and headed outside. “It's clear,” she called.

The first thing that Iain noticed was that it was drizzling and that errant gusts were blowing the drizzle under his hat and against his face. It wasn't unusual anymore. Some magic that Scott's forces had used had screwed up weather all over the world. Here, it looked like Israel and other parts of the nearby Middle East were going to be green with vegetation in the near future.

The second thing he noticed was the soldier waiting at the bottom of the ramp. “It looks like our escort is here.”

“It could be worse,” Allison said as they started down the ramp. “The Israeli government doesn't know you're our clan leader. If they did, they might want to treat you as a head of state.”

“Oh, fuck me,” Iain muttered.

Allison flashed a grin. “Now? Can I get a rain check instead? I don't like outlanders watching.”

The soldier was tall and slender and he wore the rank tabs of a major, which in the IDF was called a rav seren. The gray beret and the insignia on it identified him as a member of the combat engineering corps. He stepped forward, his hand out. “I'm Rav seren Sharon Vaknim.” He pronounced his first name with the long O. “Welcome to Zikhron Ya'akov.” He glanced at the sky. “According to meteorological forecasts this is expected to last all day but it shouldn't get any worse.”

Iain shook. “Iain Grey, but then you already know that.”

“I did, but I'm not sure what to call you.”

“Well, I'm a captain in the TDF but that's because the Texas Rangers have military rank so they can help fight if needed and so we can arrest soldiers if we have to. But I don’t really use that rank except in official situations, so how about you just call me Iain?”

“Then I'm Sharon.” He looked at a drone hovering not too far away. “You're not selling us those, are you?”

“You don't have the computer power to run them or the technical base to manufacture them,” Iain said. He flashed a smile. “Yet. They're just here because the PLO has been lobbing missiles this far and they'll keep any from endangering me. As for why I'm here, I'm delivering the drilling equipment samples and in a few minutes a tug will be arriving with the first natural gas delivery. You're here for the drilling gear and the Caterpillars, right?”

“I am.” He shook his head. “I still find it hard to believe there's oil in the Golan Heights.”

“Well, there is. If I wanted to pull a joke on Israel, it would not be something this stupid. There's oil in the Heights and there's a lot of natural gas offshore from Haifa. That should help your country get ready for when things go more sideways than they are now.”

Vaknim frowned. “Is that slang?”

“When things go sideways it's because something is wrong,” Iain replied. “Like when a car skids out of control.”

Vaknim laughed. “I like it. So what did you bring us?”

“This is just a sample to see if it's what your government wants from us. There are four bulldozers and six tractor trailers filled with oil drilling equipment, two with pallets of cement and one load of requested vehicle repair parts.”

Vaknim looked like he'd found the password into the cave of Ali-Baba's thieves. “You brought us cement? That's wonderful. We’re always short of cement with all the construction we’re doing and the attacks from feral pokegirls and other people.”

“It's one of the things that your country is interested in purchasing from us,” Iain replied.

“I hope they're giving you good land for this,” Vaknim said. So he’d heard some of the details of the deal Prometheus had made with the Israeli government.

“They're still deciding where that land will be,” Iain replied. “But I don't think they'll screw me over too badly.” He wasn't really worried about it. Britain was deeding him land well inside the borders of the current Blue League, probably as an incentive to keep supplying them as he couldn't take ownership of the land if Queen Anne's forces lost. At the moment the Irish government was discussing if they were going to purchase from him at all. For some reason they wanted him to be like the UN and give them the things they wanted as a gift and they were still getting used to the concept that he wasn't going to do that.

“I certainly hope not,” Vaknim said. “We need these supplies desperately.”

Iain nodded. “Are you prepared for the tanker?”

Vaknim blinked and then his brain caught up with the change in subject. “We are. I'll show you where you can land it. Come with me.” He led them to a flat area that had a large embankment built around it. “I was told you're supposed to land here. The LNG connections are over there and we'll pump the liquefied gas into those storage tanks for either transshipment or use here. Most of it will go straight into the gas pipeline system for distribution throughout Israel, but we're converting more and more of our civilian vehicles over to it to free up diesel and petrol for our military equipment.” He looked back at the shuttle with an undisguised look of longing. “Where did you get that? We could really use vehicles like it.”

Iain shook his head. “Those are not for sale or lease. And there are some significant differences between those and conventional aircraft that some pilots cannot seem to adapt to. And my supply of them is rather limited.”

“I heard you got them from aliens,” Vaknim said.

“Sharon, I'm not going to discuss it other than to say that the guy who destroyed civilization had a lot of neat toys and I've found some of his bases stocked full of them.” That was all true, except for the inference that the shuttle and other spacecraft were initially Scott's, and that wasn't a lie either.

“Damn, you're lucky.”

Iain shrugged as he looked the sight over and, more importantly, let Theodora look it over with his twee. It's satisfactory, but I do not like how it blocks the line of sight in two directions. If missiles come from those I may not have time to intercept before they pop up to attack the tanker. She was unhappy about how two buildings were close enough and high enough to create a shadow in the sensors on the tanker.

Fortunately there was a solution. Use the drones we have now and drop a couple of the shuttle's remote sensors in place to fill the blind spots and then tie those sensors into the tanker's tactical net. You'll still have a limited field of fire for direct fire weapons but at least you'll be able to see the missiles coming and know where they'll appear so you can shoot them.

That's an excellent idea. I'll do it.

Iain wondered if she had actually missed this idea or if she'd waited to see if he'd suggest it and if he hadn't she'd have brought it up to him. It could be a test or it could be she just didn't think about tying the shuttle's resources to the tanker. He thought about it for a minute and decided it wasn't important. She was clan and family and he'd back her up no matter what.

Theodora listened as Iain's twee provided feedback on what he was thinking and almost hugged herself with glee. Iain was progressing nicely and his tactical thinking was getting better every day. The fact that he didn't consider that with the available technology the PLO (there was a First Intifada but the US was too busy to get involved and there was no Madrid Conference in 1991 so the PLO still avowed to destroy Israel and had no official recognition anywhere) and Hamas didn't have pop up missiles wasn't significant. She wasn't training him to think about outlander technology since it was generally inferior to that fielded by the clans. If the missiles in the soon to be removed sensor shadow chose to slam into the building instead of going over it, then she'd cheerfully use the building and its outlander inhabitants as armor until the building fell. Once that happened she'd have a clear field of fire on the missiles as they headed for the tanker and at that point they could be dealt with.

Iain pulled his pokedex from his belt and activated it as one of the sentry drones drifted away. “This is Iain. The tanker is cleared to land.”

Theodora's voice came from the speaker. “The tanker is cleared to land, aye. The tanker is inbound. You should see it in three minutes, sir, approaching from the west.”

I trim the angle of descent and apply power to the engines to compensate for the fact that the wind is stronger than I anticipated. Sluggishly, the tanker adjusts to the proper orientation. A hundred seconds passes before the local Israeli radar passes detection thresholds and IFF interrogation transmissions are sent out. I have the correct countersigns and respond with them almost instantly. Fifteen seconds pass before I receive acknowledgment, but that isn't bad for organic response systems.

If I had been attacked, I would have had to defend with the tanker's paltry array of point defense weapons while climbing for the one place they couldn't follow, orbit. At the very worst I'd dump the LNG and let it fall free for several seconds before igniting it to create a diversion. If an enemy jet had flown through the gas coming from the liquid, it would have ignited the cloud for me and died while doing so.

But there were no attacks and I began the final approach right on schedule. The landing area came into view kilometers ahead and I began braking with the drive while orienting to put the tanker directly into position as it came to a complete halt. I also put the point defenses on standby as this was the point where the tanker is the most vulnerable to being intercepted by both air and ground attack systems. Israel has enemies and by selling things to Israel many of its enemies will become ours.

Seventy two seconds later I was fifteen meters over the landing site and oriented properly. Descent took only another twelve seconds until the tanker touched down. I ran a systems check on the tanker as the solar panels deployed and, finding everything well within operational parameters, uncoupled the tug and lifted it off again, turned it and began retracing my steps back to space and the refueling station on the far side of Luna.

Iain watched as the tanker slowed and stopped as its landing gear extended and the entire vessel rotated into position before dropping lightly to the ground precisely in front of the fill connection in one smooth operation. A handful of seconds elapsed as solar panels rotated into optimum position down the length of the tanker before the superstructure framework lifted off, leaving the tanks it had cradled inside behind. The tug turned and headed east, climbing as it did until it vanished into the sky.

Rav seren Vaknim was watching the tug with a hungry expression and Iain fancied the man was trying hard not to drool. “Wow. Where did you say you found that?”

“I didn't, but Scott had some asteroid bases and after I found the first one I've been hunting the others down as fast as I can. They're as large as a city and full of interesting things.” He watched the engineer for a few seconds. “The tanker is ready to hook up.”

Vaknim blinked and looked at Iain. “What?”

“The liquid natural gas is ready to be offloaded,” Iain said patiently.

“Oh, yes.” Vaknim looked at the tanks. “That thing is huge,” he said. “How much LNG in there?”

“This trip we brought you five hundred thousand cubic meters.”

Vaknim's head came around. “What?”

“You heard me. It's more than Israel uses in a year. That'll keep you supplied while your government is drilling for oil in the Heights and drilling for gas offshore of Haifa.”

“Who are you?”

Iain shrugged. “That is a very vague question and I think I'll decline.”

“Are you immigrating to Israel?”

Iain shook his head. “The closest I ever came to being Jewish was when I lusted after some very attractive Jewish girls in my high school. Now I'm in Texas and I have a family. I'm set.”

Vaknim laughed. “I've lusted after Jewish girls too, so we have that in common.”

“Do you have any pokegirls?”

Vaknim shook his head. “Right now they're for the soldiers but as we get more I hope to. We engineers could use them too and it gets lonely at night out here.” He looked from Pandora to Allison. “Yours are very nice looking.”

“We're nice in other ways too,” Allison said with a wicked smile.

Vaknim looked surprised and Iain spoke before he could. “We haven't met any pokegirls in Israel. I've seen some but they didn't talk to anyone. If Allison's behavior surprises you, we don't know what the rules are for pokegirls here. In any case, we're Texans and we have our own ways of doing things.”

Vaknim gave him an embarrassed smile. “No, it's not that. I haven't dealt with many pokegirls and she's very pretty and exotic. It just sounded like she was flirting with me.”

Allison chuckled. “I am satisfied with Iain, Sharon. But people flirt and I am a person.”

Vaknim nodded. “That you are, Miss Allison.”

“It's Allison,” the Umbrea said, “but I appreciate the term.”

Pandora glanced at her and shook her head. “I'm Pandora, but I'm Iain's bodyguard so I'm occupied at the moment. And I don't flirt.”

“She's right,” Allison said. “She's Miss dour and gloom.”

Pandora ignored her. I don't think Allison is cut out to be one of your guards, she said to Iain. She likes to talk to people too much. She's not alone in that, but if she's my sole support as she is now it could prove problematic. I'll find a polite way to remove her from the rotation except for the monthly refresher. Do you have a problem with that?

I don't think I need a guard, as you well know. However, I agreed that you were its captain and you make the personnel decisions. That hasn't changed.

Thank you. I wanted to be sure considering how much you like Allison.

I can't keep on liking her if I'm dead. Pandora gave him a quick smile before she went back to watching their surroundings as Iain glanced at the Umbrea. “Allison.” She looked at him. “Job.”

Her ears went flat for a second and her tail drooped as she absorbed the rebuke. “Sir,” she said crisply and began scanning around them.

Vaknim blinked. “I didn’t get her in trouble, did I?”

“No, you didn’t,” Iain replied. “So where are your drivers for the vehicles and equipment in my shuttle?”

Speakers on the shuttle and the tanker activated at the same time, speaking in a loud feminine voice. “Incoming missiles. Incoming missiles.” Half of the drones shot upwards, gaining altitude in order to increase their engagement envelope as the voice continued speaking. “Missiles on ballistic intercept course.” Three of the higher altitude drones flickered with blue-green light as they fired short bursts of plasma bolts. “Missiles destroyed. Radioing Israeli authorities of the locations where debris will land.”

Vaknim was staring at the drones. “When do you think we’ll have the opportunity to buy those?”

“That’s up to your government,” Iain said. “Israel is rightly focusing on buying items from Prometheus that it can use to beef up its own infrastructure. Your government knows it can’t make combat drones yet, much less their control systems and so it hasn’t expressed much of an interest in them.”

“But why not,” Vaknim almost cried.

“Sharon.” Vaknim looked at Iain. “Before Scott sent things to hell, your government acquired equipment from a handful of governments because it couldn’t manufacture them locally. When those governments vanished, Israel had a bunch of useless scrap because of it since they couldn’t make repair or maintenance parts. Expanding your manufacturing and making your equipment in Israel is the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We have enemies too and Prometheus could be destroyed because of it and my family wiped out. And as we both know all too well, today’s friends may not be so friendly tomorrow. You might have a change of government to one that doesn’t want to deal with Texans, or at least me as one of the suppliers of the Prometheus Society. And since Prometheus is the product of one of my family, if they don’t want to deal with me they may not want to deal with Prometheus.”

Vaknim looked faintly disgusted. “I hate politics.”

“It’s not my first choice for a profession either,” Iain admitted. “But sometimes I have to wade through it and then bathe thoroughly afterwards.” He waited for Vaknim to finish laughing.

“Now, as much as I like Israel, I would really like to get your cargo unloaded and you’ll need to get your drivers for that to happen.”

“I have one more question. If you’re just helping us build our own manufacturing base, why the truckload of parts?”

“It’s because you already have all of that scrap and those parts and others Prometheus will deliver later will make some of that scrap useful. Now, you were going to get the drivers?”

Vaknim nodded. “They’re in the administration building. It will just take a moment to call them.”

“Sharon, you do that. Meanwhile I’ll get the cargo hatches open and configured for your equipment to drive out.” He watched as Vaknim headed for the building that formed the sensor shadow for the tanker before turning to Allison. “Get the cargo doors open and the ramps locked in place please.”

She nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Not here,” he said with a smile. “You’re not in nearly as much trouble as you think but we’ll not have this discussion in front of outlanders.”

She gave him a wary smile back. “Cargo doors and ramps it is, sir.” She turned and almost ran for the shuttle.

Pandora waited until Allison was well out of earshot. “Nicely done.”

“There’s no reason to chew her ass out if you’re going to place her in standby status.” He glanced at the sky. “Theodora, can you trace the missiles back to a launch point?”

“I was monitoring them on satellite since they entered Israeli space and yes, I have their launch site under satellite surveillance. It’s a fixed launcher site inside Syria and currently the launcher is being reloaded.”

“Citing their agreement with Prometheus, please pass the information of its existence back to the Israeli government and ask them if we can destroy it for them.”

“I will.”

Pandora gave him a hard look. “What will we do if they say no?”

“I’ll install better antimissile defenses on anything of ours that we put here, that’s what. If Israel doesn’t want a missile site that’s launching into Israel destroyed, I’m not going to argue with them over it. They might be involved in some kind of negotiations with Syria that I would disrupt. I’ll do what they want until an enemy actually hits something that’s mine. Then it becomes my problem and I’ll deal with it however I want.”

The Archangel went back to scanning around them. “Won’t the Israelis say that’s rather high and mighty of you?”

“I certainly hope they do.” She gave him a curious glance and he chuckled softly. “I like Israel and the Israelis, for the most part. I think they’d do better with the Texas model of government, but right now the changeover would just give their enemies a chance to kill them and it’s not my business to preach political models to people. We’re barely functional as it is. But Prometheus told them that we would protect our property and some imaginary line in the sand can go straight to Hell if the people on either side of it think it’ll stop me from paying back some fucktard for damaging my stuff.”

“You’re supposed to be stopping your profanity use, not inventing new words to replace the old ones,” Pandora noted wryly. Iain just smiled, licked a finger and drew an imaginary vertical line in the air. She chuckled. “I get a point? Excellent. That’s much better than your usual derision on that subject.”

“When you’re right, you’re right.”

Allison rejoined them. “The cargo hatches are open and the ramp reads locked in position. I did a quick visual and everything looks all right.”

He nodded. “Let’s go see. I want to make sure nothing bad happens to the trucks while they’re driving off of my ship. I wouldn’t want the Israeli’s nice new toys to arrive scratched. I know I’d want a discount in that situation.”

Iain Grey

Inner Harem

Ninhursag Grey - Elfqueen & maharani

Eve Grey - Megami Sama

April Grey - Duelist & beta

Dominique Grey - Blessed Archmage

Pandora - Fiendish Archangel

Canaan - G Splice (Hunter Amachamp & Alaka-Wham)

Zareen - Nightmare

Raquel - Fiendish Rapitaur

Sofia - Ria

Vanessa – Evangelion

Lucifer – Megami Sama

Outer Harem

Allison – Umbrea (Outer Harem Alpha)

Daphne - Whorizard

Lynn - Growlie

Chuck – Doggirl

Ryan – Unicorn

Winifred - Rack (German)

Rosemary - Mistoffeles (Uruguayan)

Silver - Pegaslut

Joyce – Milktit

Ganieda – Snugglebunny Splice

Outer Clan

Melanie – Iron Chef

Siobhan – NurseJoy (Glasgow)

Queendom / Outer Harem

12 Elves

Heather - Elf

Dionne - Elfqueen

Adrianna - Elfqueen

Dianthus Barbatus - Elfqueen

Heltu - Wet Queen

6 Wet Elves

Dead Harem

Eirian - Silver Dragoness

Aurum - Gold Dragoness

Skye - Blue Dragoness

Emerald - Green Dragoness

Beryl - Red Dragoness

Julia - human

Ling - Cheetit

Matilda - White Tigress

Liadan - Twau

Sorrel - Armsmistress

Natalie - Blazicunt

Maria – Slutton

Rhea Silvia - Chimera

Mother s & Children

Vanessa

Myrna

Saoirse

April

Dorothy: Duelist

Meara: Duelist

Regan: Duelist

Canaan

Hannah: Huntress

Rebecca: Huntress

Joyce

Lisa: Milktit

Sherrie: Milktit

Harriet: Milktit

Lucifer

Olivia: Megami-sama

Seraphina: Megami-sama

Zareen

Caltha: Nightmare

Kim: Nightmare

Xanthe: Nightmare

Epona: Nightmare

Philippa: Nightmare

Nott: Nightmare

Nyx: Nightmare

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